WikiLeaks barged into offices all over Central Asia, pressuring independent journalists like these reporters at the highly-respected Asia Plus to instantly sign agreements on WikiLeaks' terms to publish US cables about their country. Here Marat Mamadshoev and a colleague are being told to sign the agreement immediately, but decline.
I'm sickened by Mediastan, the latest propaganda piece by anarchist impresario Julian Assange.
This is my quick take upon first view of this video (so sorry if there are mistakes or names missing, they will be fixed). It's available for rent ($2.99) or pay $7.00 plus on Vimeo. Naturally, I'm unhappy that I had to give a dime to WL, which I oppose on principle -- and I have to wonder how it is that Paypal could agree to accept these payments when it has blocked payments directly from WikiLeaks (and I plan to raise this issue with both Vimeo and PayPal).This piece of vile stuff is supposed to be Assange's attempt to provide an "antidote" to a movie about him coming out in theaters October 18 which he doesn't like called The Fifth Estate (it's too critical) which he trying to kill off in various ways.
Perhaps he's counting on the fact that most people don't know anything about Central Asia, and will merely be impressed that he and his merry band of hacksters caroming around the perilous but picturesque mountain roads of Central Asia -- complete with Soviet-style policeman stopping and searching traffic, tunnels under repair until who knows when, and lots of sheep blocking the road -- are the coolest of cypherphunk hipsters going on a " journalism" trip through dangerous territory.
Except it's not at all that. What this journey consists of is a bunch of people from the region whose first names only are given within the film (but see the credits below), and the discredited journalist Johannes Wahlstrom, son of the notorious antisemite and provocateur Israel Shamir. Discredited -- because of the tendentious way he has covered Israel-Palestine issues, and disgraced because he is accused of falsifying quotes and of antisemitism.)
So an unintended bonus is that with Wahlstrom narrating most of the film -- when the Great One Himself isn't butting in and pontificating -- is that WikiLeaks cannot claim anymore that Shamir and Son don't have anything to do with them and don't represent them. They most surely do, as this film proves.
Johannes is a Russian speaker because he likely grew up in Russia or at least speaking Russian with his father -- who has played a sordid role in the Snowden affair, too, about which you can read on my other blog, Minding Russia. But he and the other handlers or minders or whoever the hell they are really have no sense of this region, whatever their Russian language ability, and burst in aggressively -- and disgustingly -- to try to strong-arm local news media in dire straits in Central Asia, where there is a huge list of murdered, jailed, disappeared and beaten journalists, into publishing WikiLeaks cables.
Another bonus is that one of the Russian-speaking journalists on the tour admits openly that he fabricated stories at his job (supposedly because he felt himself to be pressured to do so by his bosses and their need to sell newspapers) and then was ultimately fired. This is just about the level of journalistic quality we can expect throughout this film.
(The reason I mixed up Wahlstrom and this Russian in an earlier version of this blog, since corrected is because both are accused of fabrications; the Russian admits it in the film, Wahlstrom denies it. And while some WikiLeaks operative @Troushers is accusing me of "lying" here in my summary of the dialogue of this Russian journalist, I stand by it -- indeed he openly admits he fabricated letters and indeed the implication is that he was pressured by his boss, who needed to sell papers even if he didn't say literally that phrase -- Internet kids are so literalist. The obvious reality is, the theme throughout the entire film is that editors and journalists in mainstream media only do things to sell newspapers -- i.e. the obvious point of the snarky portrayal of Bill Keller and Sulzberger talking about traffic for a column of Bill's "half supportive" of Obama. Here's the script verbatim from Dmitry Velikovsky, from Russkiy Reporter, who has been active in covering Manning's trial in the past. Russkiy Reporter also sponsored the showing of the film in Moscow.
Velikovsky: I began with some funny study. I was obliged to edit the column "letters of readers". But the problem was that there were absolutely no letters to edit. But the column should be published twice a day. And so I was obliged to to invent those letters me myself. And I just invented a lot of them.
Wahlstrom: did you get some, any letters at all from real readers?
Velikovsky: Yes we got some maybe three, four or five in two months but they were all containing some critics.
Wahlstrom: but these letters you didn't publish.
Velikovsky: I wanted to publish those letters in the factual content of the newspaper because I found it rather important to have some kind of self criticism. But our marketing department had no self criticism and they forbid me to publish it. So i invented letters about problems of veterans, problems of pensioners, problems of no matter whom. So that's how I became a journalist.
Cue tinkly music...
Astoundingly, this aggressive, beligerent crew have no sense of themselves in this film, so imbued are they with their self-righteousness, even as they beam in Julian Assange on Skype who instructs the locals how they are to treat this material.
It's very clear WikiLeaks has absolutely no interest in the substance of the local stories, they just want to collect partners -- or conversely, shame those potential partners who refuse to deal with them for various reasons by making them look like they are boot-licking lackeys of the United States.
They tape phone conversations with people that are rather sensitive -- like a journalist in danger discussing whether he should publish a story about somebody who wants to run a coup in Tajikistan (!) -- and we have no idea if the people involved were informed that these calls would be taped -- and included in the film.
The single most damaging aspect I've seen in this agitprop trash is that the utterly unsupported claim is made that the local press are paid by the US Embassy to print flattering things about the US in order to get the leaders and publics of these countries to bend over while the US uses them as a launching pad and staging area for their war in Afghanistan.
The WikiLeaks people are too ignorant and blinded by their anti-American ideology to understand that a) the US has no need for this because these countries have cooperated anyway b) these tyrants have their own interests in playing off the US against Russia and China c) it doesn't matter as the US is pulling out of Afghanistan next year anyway.
Now, I write as someone who for six years worked at EurasiaNet and Open Society Foundation and wrote critically about the US role in Central Asia, particularly about the severe human rights and humanitarian issues -- about which the US government was oftne silent -- and the issues around the Northern Distribution Network, the supply path to Afghanistan from Russia which enabled the US to bring non-lethal cargo to NATO troops.
I probably wrote more than anybody on the WikiLeaks cables in Turkmenistan, strategically located between Iran and Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries with heavy US involvement, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. You can search for all these articles and those of my colleagues here eurasianet.org
I also worked in the past as a free-lancer for RFE/RL ("(Un)Civil Society" and "Media Matters") and never experienced any censorship -- I wrote and published directly to the site. I recall only instances when care was taken in covering mass demonstrations once in Ukraine to make sure that the article didn't incite people -- as RFE/RL has a history of being charged with causing uprisings, i.e. in the Hungarian revolution and invasion by Soviet troops. RFE/RL is funded by Congress, but it doesn't have overlords hanging over you as you write -- there is far more independent coverage there than anything you'd see at RT.com, the Kremlin-sponsored propaganda outlet or Al Jazeera.
I have no relationship whatsoever to the US government, so I am certainly qualified to say that this film is an unfair hatchet job on people in harm's way -- oh, so typical of WikiLeaks.
The film opens with the WikiLeaks crew rolling through the mountains with Mehrabanb Fazrollah of Pyandj, Tajikistan, born 18 October 1962, in the back seat of the car telling his story. He was held five years in Guantanamo about which you can read some here.
Through a series of astoundingly leading questions, broad innuendos or outright promptings, the WL gang incites Fazrollah into saying he really knew nothing of any military significance, and his jailing was all for nothing, and boy is he mad. I don't know anything of his case except what I've read in the papers, but the duplicitious smiles and repeating of what foreigners want to hear are very old stories to me from having traveled in this region (I haven't ever been in Tajikistan but I've spent years travelling to Russia and other countries and interviewing Tajiks outside of Tajikistan).
Assange claims bitterly that this poor fellow spent five years ""to find out about a couple of fucking refugees in Tajikistan".
Actually, that's not even what the cable said or even what the man in the film says. They said there were 100,000 refugees. This is relevant of course regarding the Northern Alliance and the Tajiks in Afghanistan. The fellow is charged with membership in the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan (IMT) allied with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group on the American list of terrorist organizations.
Sorry, but this is not nothing, these are real terrorism movements, even if supposedly in decline (like, you know, Al Shabaab was in decline and chased out of their stronghold when they hit Westgate Mall in Kenya?)
You would never know from Assange's sneers that this is a country that was in a civil war for years, that it had the highest number of journalists murdered -- some 50, nearly as many as Algeria, also in a civil war at the time, that these journalists were killed by Islamists because they were secular or visa versa because they were not approved Muslims killed by state security. The war is a complicated one but to pretend that terrorism and war isn't a factor here -- right next to Afghanistan -- is absurd.
This is of course the game, too, of the International Relations Realist school in Washington and elsewhere, who minimize terrorism and laugh it away as a fantasy of Pentagon planners. But the reality is that both are true -- real terrorist acts have occurred here and there are in fact real Islamists pressuring secular society including press, and there are also fake terrorists that the oppressive government thinks up to keep itself in power. And you know something? I surely do not trust Julian Assange and his crew of losers to tell the difference.
I will never forget in my life the terrified face of a Tajik journalist who had been receiving death threats that I helped rescue from Tajikistan in the 1990s -- and it was a brave man going the extra mile inside the US Embassy actually that got him and his family out of there.
In the film, after reading some cables on Gitmo -- and as I said, the cases may be innocent, but the WL goons are hardly the judge, and there are real complex problems of terrorism and pressure on secularism in these countries -- Assange and Wahlstrom sit and guffaw about a line in a memo they've found about Bildt getting in touch with Karl Rove instead of really trying to understand the complexities of the region They find this such a smoking gun and so "evil" that they roar for minutes, but we don't get the joke.
The translator asks outrageously leading questions and they all laughed and carried on and made it clear they sympathized with the Tajik taken from the battlefield from Gitmo and don't interview him impartially or critically at all. In the same way the pick up a memo from someone named Michael Owens, and start roaring about the US "empire of the 21st century" -- which is of course a rather lack-luster claim these days -- some empire of the 21st century which they are just now leaving, eh?
Then they read from cables -- only partially -- with a "scene-setter" -- talking about how the Tajiks have "unfailingly" allowed their overflights, which is all they really wanted from them. They then purport to read from a cable implying that these "imperialist Americans" in Dushanbe want to "make the local media more pro-American" and will first plant positive stories in the Russian media, then pay the local media to reprint them in the local press.
They don't actually cite from any document or give any source, and it isn't in any known cable from the WikiLeaks Cablegate already published that the US Embassy engages in this practice.
So without anything to bolster this claim, WikiLeaks smears gazeta.ru, Interfax, and Ekho Moskvy, claiming that they've somehow engaged in this practice.
It really is an outright lie. I have read the Russian-language press in this region for years. They are critical of the US and there aren't these glowing planted pieces they imagine. And the US doesn't need to engage in such a silly, crude practice.
First of all, CENTCOM, the US military command for the region of Central Asia, has its own official news service, but more to the point, it has its own supported English- and Russian-language Internet news service everyone knows they are behind as they tell you, that it uses to put stories for the local media to pick up - where they are identified as such and sourced from this page, not hidden under bylines or mastheads from the indigenous media.
Secondly, none of these papers in the region have very big readerships -- they don't have the capacity. We are talking about newspapers with 50,000 or 100,000 or 500,000 possibly at the most, but more at the low end. It's just not a way to reach people. Internet penetration is very low in some of the countries -- it's about 60% in Russia but drops down sharply as you go East.
The US already has Voice of America as an outlet to cover the perspectives of the US, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty which serves to enhance or enable struggling local media -- they have open partnerships with some local stations, and because they are far more independent than the official media of these authoritarian states, they have more credibility. To be sure, RFE/RL are not going to be radically antithetical to the foreign policy of the United States, any more than the BBC or Al Jazeera or RT.com. But unlike Al Jazeera and RT.com, RFE/RL really tries to cover critical local news without fear or favour, and proof of that is just how many journalists have been arrested, jailed or expelled over the decades. The US government doesn't need to crudely pay somebody to hide behind, in other words. But these, too, don't have a huge audience outside the intelligentsia in the big cities.
The fact is, WikiLeaks has not produced proof of this disreputable claim, because they've cited one cable only partially where it sounds like a proposal that one doesn't know was fulfilled, and in citing another cable, in Kyrgyzstan, it appears that the Kyrgyz foreign minister presents this idea, and that it doesn't come from the Americans.
To be sure, paid-for press and infomercials and advertorials are rampant in this region in the official and unofficial press. But to claim that these brave independent outlets take payments to portray te US nicely is just an outright smear for which there isn't an iota of proof. It puts these brave people in danger to suggest it.
I really winced -- and then was simply angry -- when I saw WikiLeaks lurch into the office of Asia-Plus, the Tajik Internet and wire service that I find among the best and bravest in this region. American and Russian papers don't try to ask hard questions of US State Department officials when they embark on tours of this area in search of pipelines and supply lines -- but Asia-Plus does, I've seen this time and again.
These are people have been beaten and jailed and threatened -- when at one point the journalists in Dushanbe say they have to call their editor-in-chief in Washington to clear the proposed agreement with WikiLeaks, WL implies that this outlet is too close to the US government -- again a smear, since in fact the editor was on a temporary study visit that was arranged because *his life was in danger* in the very oppressive setting of Tajikistan where crippling specious libel fines, beatings, and death threats make it a hugely hard job to be doing.
The Tajiks matter-of-factly tell WikiLeaks they aren't interested. Marat Mamadshoev, a deputy editor, tries to explain that what seems sensational to Westerners is already ho-hum to them -- and I could add, as people who have been through a bloody civil war and wrenching poverty and the depredations of being a client state of Russia, most of whose able-bodied men are working as labor migrants in Russia, where they face discimination, beatings and killings as well from increasingly violent racist Russian movements.
Showing no tact or understanding at all, the WL crew try to stuff their agreement down the throats of these Tajik journalists, even beaming in The Silver-Haired Ecuadorean Caged One in via Skype who tells them.
"Here's how I think you SHOULD handle these materials," says Assange -- to people he's about to portray the next day as some kind of fearful sell-outs. He orders them not to scan for specific stories, but read all the materials as a whole - some 3000 cables. If they start picking out stuff, "you will bring your prejudice to this material and you will only find what you already know," Assange, who knows nothing about this country or region, imperiously tells these endangered reporters.
Wahlstrom unconscionably tries to pressure them to sign the WL agreement *right this minute* -- I marvel that the WL gang can't see how bad they look in these scenes! -- but Marat asks to think about it over night and consult his editor in Washington.
The next day he says cautiously, "a lot of stuff we can't publish". He describes a cable about a man saying he went to the US Embassy to say he was planning a coup. "He could sue us," he explains.
Of course, somebody actually planning a coup who was crazy enough to go tell the Americans in their Embassy bugged by Tajik State Security is probably in fact crazy, or some kind of provocateur. I don't know without seeing this cable. But this is frigging ridiculous. Nobody should be strong-armed into signing agreements to publish provocative cables like this without taking the time to research it.
Hustled beyond belief -- with dubious material -- Marat declines the agreement to publish the cable. "Why can't you publish that the man is preparing a coup?" the WL team again demands imperiously. "We have taken some advice not to publish the story," says Marat, and the scene closes, implying that he is under instruction, from Washington or Dushanbe -- which is of course a smear. They just have no idea. It is an AWFUL film. And HARMFUL to people doing a brave job under difficult circumstances who don't exist to advance the anarchist agenda of Assange and his band of thugs. [Note: If Marat did indeed sign this agreement -- and keep it in effect and not annul it, and I'd like a second opinion on this -- the point is that he didn't publish the most scandalous cables, not due to "US pressure" but because of the threat his own country's government posed to him.]
Next they lurch on to Kazakhstan where they see Ekspert and KazTag. I could try to explain more about these publications but for now let me note that when you see the crew walking into the National Press Club, you realize they may not realize (or may not want to understand given Shamir's notorious proximity to Russian intelligence circles) that anything in that building is going to be dependent in some way on the state, which created all the press clubs and journalists' union in the Soviet era and still utterly controls them. Sure, there is an independent press, but the more independent, the more crushed, with its editors or journalists in jail.
The Kazakhs are suspicious of WL's motives, too (and rightly so). WL's film converts this into suspicion cast then on the Kazakhs who refuse to be strong-armed into signing the "non-binding" WL agreement which amounts to not giving the cables to third parties or selling the material.
"Why did you come here? Who are you to tell us what our civic position should be?" says the Kazakh editor. In every case, the cables discussed are more about casting the US in a bad light than the dictators who are of course far worse in this region. Wisely, the editor asks who is paying for WikiLeaks' filming trip. One has to wonder! He doesn't get an answer!
"WikiLeaks is like a tool, if an unskilled person will use it, it could turn out bad. A person can use a shovel to dig or to behead; it will be anarchy if an unskilled man gets this material," explains the editor to WL.
In a conversation that could have taken place in Washington or New York, one Russian editor in Kazakhstan says, "I know that economic benefits may come from collaboration with you
it could help our sales." But then, he asks, we would not want to have so many partners."
Too late, says WL. They already talked to a lot of people
Strangely, the crew arrives in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan and just happen to stumble on hunger-striking oil workers -- the same people who were then fired on, with some of them killed, some time later. The film incorporates footage without ever explaining anything about what is going on.
Then, the group heads to Kyrgyzstan, where they talk to Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL. They read a cable about the US ambassador and foreign minister under Bakiyev, the toppled dictator, who says the agreement must be kept secret on about the US military base. He says he needs help preparing the Kyrgyz public, and asks for help by placing articles in the local Russian-language press - the same claim as Tajikistan.
And again, there is no context and no obvious recognition that this is the Kyrgyz saying this -- it is not proven as an American plan. And as I explained, neither the US nor Kyrgyzstan would have to engage in such sillyness as they have other outlets where they are marked as such. And on the whole, the way these countries deal with sensitive issues like the war in Afghanistan is not to cover them at all.
Sultanbek Joumagulov, editor at Radio Azattyk, is pushed and pressured to sign the agreement with WL, too. He is urged to answer if he can publish "anything" and he says yes. But at some point, he says to his pushy interolocutors, "I thought I was talking about freedom of speech, I wasn't prepared that this would be an interview about WikiLeaks." He explains that there are ethical standards to follow and that yes, he has to consult with his editor in Prague about whether this is a story to cover. It is, after all, an American-managed station. And hey, one big ethical consideration to consider, guys, is whether you should publish stolen classified cables that might harm the good work the US is actually able to do in these oppressive settings dealing with impossible situations.
Once again, the implication is that these people -- in fact brave journalists who have taken on the burden of associating themselves with this foreign broadcaster RFE/RL for the sake of trying to get the real news out from their country -- are somehow tools of US imperialism. It makes me sick.
"Aren't you financed by the State Department"? sneer the WikiLeaks crew.
"No, by Congress," the Kyrgyz explains. It doesn't matter. For WL, it's a distinction without a difference, although of course it means that this is democratic and transparent.
But because these people didn't want to drop what they are doing, they are instantly tarred and discredited.
Vladimir Gubanov, editor of state-controled Neutral Turkmenistan. Screenshot from Mediastan. He's typical of state hacks in this region working for tyrants, but those aren't typical of the people WikiLeaks visited -- most of whom were independent journalists struggling to cover news.
The most bizarre scene has to be the trip to Turkmenistan (how did they get a press pass to do THAT?) and their visit to Neutral'naya Turkmenistan (which isn't), founded by the President (may he live forever). A nervous Vladimir Gubanov, the editor, explains that he isn't a journalist, in fact, but a member of parliament -- or should we say, "parliament". God knows how they got him to take part in this charade.
Back in London, a group of Central Asian journalists confront Assange and Sarah Harrison -- yes, she's featured in this film! -- with the shoddy way they've sprung themselves on these hapless Central Asian editors and journalists, not telling them they were WikiLeaks until they'd get part way through the conversation, evidently, and then appearing to shame them for seeming to only be willing to publish the cables for money. The Central Asians tell Assange not to judge them.
"Don't you think it's an interesting thing to find out whether people will or won't publish the cables?" inquires Harrison. God, she's awful. Who does she think she is?! These people have a God complex.
"They're too scared to publish US government documents," sneers Assange.
But wait, they'd be too scared to publish Russian or Chinese or their own governments' documents too, in some cases, I'd say.
The journalists say that it isn't interesting because there are other criteria. But what other criteria is there than fear? Assange demands to know tendentiously. The women journalists answer -- newsworthiness, interest.
Every newspaper has a web editor that can just go POOF just like that, and they'll get free hits in Google. It's very, very profitable, says Assange cynically. In other words, he'd be happy to have the geeks in every establishment put up the cables without permission or editorial judgement, "just because they can."
I'd like to hope that my colleagues specializing on this region are going to cover this with some sort of sense and criticism and not "welcome" it just to stick it to the US -- which they are prone to do.
Surely they will see what a hack job this is, but I can't be sure.
In the scene with the Guardian's Rusbridger, Assange confronts him with the claim that the Guardian has redacted and removed substantial portions of cables. He makes a claim that in a cable involving Uzbekistan, there was an alleged statement that a connection was made between the Karimov family (rulers) and a mafia overlord, but the name of the mafia guy is witheld. Rusbridger says he doesn't recall this specific document, but he would guess it was related to "the libel courts of London" which have been "used extensively by people from the former Soviet bloc". And they have millions to spend on these cases.
Then he confronts him on another cable about Kazakhstan and Eni, the Italian energy company and alleged corrupt dealings there about which the US Embassy knew. Rusbridger responds that his paper was sued by a company and they spent a million pounds defending themselves.
Then Assange raises a cable from Bulgaria which the Guardian cut in half and redacted all the names -- and Rusbridger says he has to go. Not before describing his calls from the State Department asking him what he planned to publish when WikiLeaks broke.
P.J. Crowley is interviewed in a cafeteria in a scene that is incoherent -- because the WikiLeaks filmmakers make it so! -- but his performance is strong and he explains clearly that the release of these cables harmed people.
Bill Keller, former editor of the New York Times and now a columnist there, is presented ridiculously by these punks (he is known for his blunt criticism of Assange) as somehow waiting by the phone to take instructions from the State Department on the cables. Stupid. WL hangs on and pans the camera over Sulzberger (the owner) who bursts into the room to praise Keller for a column he did that got a lot of traffic. Keller explains that his column which constituted a "half-hearted support of Obama" got mentioned with a snarky comment by Matt Drudge, the conservative aggregator, and that gave him lots of traffic from people mainly calling him "a scum-bag."
The camera lingers on yesterday's newspaper blowing across Times Square in the dark, with traffic dashing back and forth, and we are left to, um, contemplate this "deep" lesson that the men at the NYT only care about traffic, i.e. profits, i.e. crass capitalist imperialism blah blah. Wahlstrom has wasted a perfectly good opportunity to ask Keller, who used to be the Moscow bureau chief, why he thinks nobody in this region would publish the WikiLeaks cables. (And the answer isn't about America, but about the tyrannical governments which are more related to Russia, and now China, than the US.)
Look, this is why you don't cooperate with such people or give interviews -- it's like RT.com in that respect. *They control the frame and hence the narrative.*
It's not our job to worry about destabilizing governments or to preserve stability in governments, says Keller.
Well, what about your own government, says Shamir. He confronts Keller with his decision to hold back on some of the materials from the warrantless wiretapping issue of 2006 (which of course is what Snowden is all about).
Keller says it wasn't worry about whether it would destabilize the government, but about whether the material "would help those who want to attack us."
Hey, good question, and one WikiLeaks never answers.
The film concludes claiming that "the Pentagon admitted" WikiLeaks has never harmed anyone. Nonsense. There has been no such claim. Whatever they trump up as a claim may be tactical to avoid further harming those exposed -- WikiLeaks never concedes this.
Credits, so the Motherland can know her heroes -- and note that the presence of Laura Poitras in this 2013 film should remove the speculation that she isn't in the tank with WikiLeaks and had some parting of the ways.
Jack Thomas O'Brien